The boy whose butter I ate: writing from the inside out

When I was fifteen, I wanted, with a desperate force, to fall in love.

This desire was mirrored over a decade later – though it wasn’t love I was urgently wishing for, but a career as a writer.

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In the course of my history studies, I’ve grown to like the archaic usage of the word without. ‘He thought he felt the fresh air from without the castle walls.’

It means outside, as well as suggesting the absence of something. Feeling my way along the path of these definitions is like my journey as a writer.

I see my desire to fall in love at fifteen as being outside or without myself. It came from the influence of pop songs: dancing to A-ha’s ‘Take on me’ and fantasising about Morten Harket. It wasn’t so much the lyrics, but the uplifting sensation of the opening keyboard sequence – I felt dreams could come true. Then there’s the deep note Morten hits when he begins the chorus, full of gentle, loving masculinity – I fell in love with the person behind that fragile note, and from then on needed someone to feel the same way about me.

I became obsessed with a boy who played bass in a band that did Beetles covers. I named my diary after him, and began recording moments I’d seen him around the school, or the long despair I felt at a day without a single sighting. I concocted scenarios in which he’d finally become aware of my existence. A favourite was to put myself in his path as he’s walking to lessons. I pretend to faint so that he’s forced to catch me as I slump. He lowers my body down to the ground, my head in his lap.

Alone, I’d enact the moment I come around, lying across pillows, rising up slightly, opening my eyes and saying, oh! in a perfect combination of irresistibility and abstraction.

After lunch one afternoon, I announced to my friends that I’d stolen the boy’s sachet of butter.

For some reason I can’t recall, it was someone’s duty to sit by the conveyor belt where we stacked our trays, and collect unused butter sachets in an old ice-cream tub.

I felt the jerk in my heart as the boy approached, watching his hand as he took up his butter and dropped it into the tub in my lap. I stared at the golden rectangle, lying with all the others, until he’d moved out of sight, and then I snatched it up and put it in my pocket.

My friends were listening to this, their expressions beginning to come loose. Perhaps if the story ended there, they might have been able to bear it. But, I then peeled away the golden wrapping and ate the butter.

I’d been oblivious of my friend’s worry. It was only now, when they sat me down and gathered around – a hand on my knee, one on my shoulder – that I saw their concern for my sanity.

It was clear that I was very in love, they said, but I had to be realistic. How could I hope to be this boy’s girlfriend when we’d never even spoken? He didn’t even know I existed.

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It requires a great deal of motivation to write. But how do we inspire ourselves?

On the cover of The Sunday Times Style magazine this Sunday was an image of a woman in hotpants and a cropped halterneck top, bending over to do up her roller skates, of all things. She looks over her shoulder with an expression of abundant sexual desire. Her soft, blonde curls tickle the tops of her breasts. Beneath is the headline: the fasting diet.

Am I inspired to write from a place within; or am I looking at an image in a magazine, motivated from without? The latter reminds me of that anxious form of desire I had at fifteen where what I wanted was based on a need that both pained and drove me, and would ultimately prove exhausting.

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Faced with the cruel but necessary ‘advice’ from my friends, I decided the cause of their concern had to be addressed, and fast. The boy and I needed to speak.

I found his number in the school directory and phoned him up in the holidays. I put on my best Australian accent, which I felt was the most sustainable one I could do, and asked to speak to him when his mother answered. There was a longish wait, during which my armpits grew sodden. And then I heard his voice.

Hello?

Hi! I said, all excitement. How’s it going?!

There was a pause.

Who is this?

It’s Cody! I gushed. We met in the pub last night.

There was another pause and then: um…no.

Oh my god, how embarrassing! I think I’ve got the wrong number, I screamed, throwing the receiver down. I felt deeply disgusted with myself, but also strangely exhilarated.

My friends thought this was quite funny, when I reported back, but still tried to persuade me of the futility of my mission.

You’re right, I said, wincing a little when they brought my attention to the fact that although we’d spoken, we hadn’t really spoken. Then we all got sidetracked by why I’d chosen an Australian accent, and who was Cody?

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Just as I wasn’t able to speed up the process of love, I try to be patient with my writing. It’s not something to be manufactured. I have to be myself – come from within. If I wanted to be that sexually voracious blonde in the roller skates, then I would surely be running from the pain of the realisation that I wasn’t, at the same time as I was trying to ‘be’. Wanting something because I like the idea of it – to write, to love – is not the same as just writing, or loving. How can I do either without myself? Self is not just a person’s essential being, but also the way in which we differ from others. If I try to write in the absence of my self, motivated by something outside of me, I not only lose touch with who I am, but the qualities that will make my work unique.

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One evening at school, I went down to the music department. It was dark, and I was just walking, feeling a deep sense of sadness. I came in the front entrance and heard a loving tune. I followed the sound to the main room where concerts were held. Sitting at the grand piano was the boy whose butter I’d eaten.

I went in, sitting a few rows up with my hands in my lap. He played for some time. Then he stopped and came and sat next to me. I didn’t know what to say. ‘That was amazing’ seemed a bit corny. It wasn’t that I felt the pressure of the moment – the fact that, after all the months of wanting, he was going to hear my voice – I just wanted to say something real. I was too tired for games any more.

Do you know that thing you can do with bananas? I asked him.

He squinted at me for a second and shook his head.

You cut the bottom off, and then you look to see if there’s a Y there or just a blob, which is a no.

He nodded and thought about it.

Then I said: whenever I do that, I ask a question about you.

I didn’t feel embarrassed, or stupid, I simply felt the relief of truth, finally.

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We were together for a year and a half. He was a few years older and the last months of our relationship were conducted by letter, while he was at university. He was like a photo on the cover of a magazine, promising something, which I went for forcefully, and which I then discovered couldn’t make me happy, because it was only an idea of something and not real.

After I broke up with him, he wrote me letters full of hatred, incongruously on the same neon orange stationary that he’d written letters full of love. He called me a child. But that’s what I was. It was only tragic for him because he’d fallen in love, and I had only been playing at love.

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For a long time I played at being a writer.

One night, nearly a decade ago, I was lying in bed with Dan – someone who I was beginning, for the first time, to love from the inside out. I began to tell him of the house I’d always seen in my mind. It’s mostly wooden, squat – the walls made up of long stretches of glass. Curtains blow in the wind. The view is of the sea as seen from a high cliff.

He asked me what I’d do there.

I don’t know, I told him. I’d probably have to be a writer.

Get on it, then, he said.

That house was my magazine pinup, my motivation, yet not the soul of my desire. I began to write for that mysterious dwelling on the cliff. Then I was writing because I was failing at writing and I needed success. Need. Another ‘without’.

I liked the idea of that house. Now, I think I’d go mad there, so isolated. I realise also, that in all the times I’ve seen that image, the sun has never been shining. The sky is always bleached-out silver. Melancholy. Like need can be.

I’d like to be able to write from the inside out every day – to sit at my desk and feel free of all the external motivations that each bring a dose of pain, a needful ache. But I also think that to want something like that, which is a form of perfection, is going to hinder me in so many ways. It’s yet another version of aiming for the ideal.

I think there will be many shifts, as I continue to write, each day, moving more and more inside. Though, there are also the times I move backwards – sometimes even finding myself entirely without myself again: all idiosyncratic qualities gone, and replaced by a consuming desire to be someone other than me. But this isn’t quite back at the beginning – because I’ve trodden a path out of here once before. I just have to find the opening and walk it again – back to where I’d got to. In these times, I will retrace my steps patiently, because to rush can lead to states of denial: where I make myself believe I’m on the path because, let’s say, I’m having difficulty locating it. Truthfulness is important.

For years, I would sit in sessions with my writing group, surrounding myself in denial.

Yes, but… I would often say to a comment.

‘I found your main character quite elusive.’

‘Yes, but, I want her to be elusive!’

The fact was, I was defending myself from having to rewrite the story, because that would mean looking at how I managed it in the first place, which wasn’t something I knew. How can I write a second draft, when I have no idea how I wrote the first?

Then there was the day I grasped the importance of the centre of a story – the within – the point from which it’s written. I saw that my writing group’s confusion at, say, the ending, was also my own confusion: the centre of the story was currently without my understanding. What I had to do was work at getting the story’s centre as close to my own truthfulness as possible. This happens in steps – each draft drawing closer, until I get from without understanding to a point inside, a place of compassion and insight – and then I am with the story and with myself.

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
This entry was posted in Essay, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

62 Responses to The boy whose butter I ate: writing from the inside out

  1. Sincere and eloquent.

  2. pretzellogic says:

    “the sky is always bleached-out silver. melancholy. like need can be.”

    so this is how to write from within. love your prose!

  3. pretzellogic says:

    okay, gabriela with one “l,” sorry 🙂

  4. Kim says:

    Great memoir. I love the part where you eat the butter. Just to be closer to him. Fantastic.

    • Kim, thanks so much for your lovely comment! It’s brilliant when someone connects to a specific moment – especially when it’s one you’ve wondered about for many years. I didn’t really know why I ate the butter – but you put it into words perfectly. Yes, somehow I believed it would connect us. Thanks for reading!

  5. I love the stories you tell and how you use them to get to your point.

  6. lly1205 says:

    I really like the way you expressed your experiences, and they are very relatable! The time in high school when I wanted to have a serious relationship, love for love’s sake, caused me no end of trouble. It’s all them books and movies… Or so I believe

  7. Beautiful! That “yearning” (another old word that says so much) of youth–to love, to be, to become–is so eloquently captured here. I love the way you move between the memories of your boy-crush to the now of writing and link them. You are so right–the writing has to come from within, and I think it did in this piece.

    • Thanks, Deborah. Yearning is another word I love! I think the movement in this piece that you talk about is really a simple reflection of how my mind works, finding explanation through parallels.

  8. Diana says:

    Like very much 🙂 Distance, time, perspective; Seems to help us make up our mind about how we feel about things.
    The self-revelatory awkwardnesses revealed ring true, + get at the heart of what it feels like to be a teenager. Not easy !

    • Thanks so much Diana for your lovely comment. I think I actually find it easier to write about what it feels like to be a teenager than more grown up things!! Or perhaps it’s just that things makes more sense to me with a little distance, so my ‘adult’ life now will be dissect-able in about twenty years 😉

  9. annewoodman says:

    I am now certain that we are connected… I shared the same intense desire for Morten Harket. He was the most beautiful, distant love interest. For hours, I would study his photo and sing along with his high falsetto and low growl. He is/was yummy. (And we have good taste, because he seems to have aged well).

    I spent so much of my adolescence admiring boys from afar that I can completely relate to this comparison between outside in/inside out desire of flesh and writing. I was The Champ of Never Speaking to a Love Interest. Very nice and apt comparison. And beautifully written.

  10. Beautifully illustrated in words Gabriella – I love the fact you put on a Aussie accent and called yourself by another name 😉 How much we ‘pain’ for love when we are younger, we are all the same (yes I have dreamed of fainting and head in the boy of my dreams lap also) You have chosen your life path, your writing is clearly coming from what is within you and you portray it brilliantly on the outside for us readers to enjoy…honestly… and thank you for this beautiful piece.
    xxx

    • Wow – someone else who has had the fainting fantasy! That’s the great thing about blogging your life – finding out that there are other nutjobs out there 😉 I’m glad you felt the honesty with this piece. I felt a little bit of pressure, thinking: so I am meant to be talking about writing from within, but are people going to buy it…?

  11. As I read this, it reminded me of how great stone masons seek/find what is within the stone to carve – from the centre. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thanks 🙂

  12. Liana says:

    I could go on and on…this is so real and really good…starting with the title (a very awesome title it is).

    • I’m really glad you like the title! It was just going to be ‘Writing inside out’ until I got to the scene in the music room and wrote the line: Sitting at the grand piano was the boy whose butter I’d eaten. Then I thought, hang on, this is a line!
      Love your feedback!

  13. That’s the most beautiful and insightful piece on writing that I’ve ever read. It spoke to me – about the feelings of confusion and discouragement I’ve been experiencing with my own writing, though its quite on a different level than yours! What great timing! How did you know? 😉 I love it when you write about writing. I especially loved the ‘without’ metaphor, because it is so true for me, and this part: “I think there will be many shifts, as I continue to write, each day, moving more and more inside. Though, there are also the times I move backwards – sometimes even finding myself entirely without myself again: all idiosyncratic qualities gone, and replaced by a consuming desire to be someone other than me.” I needed that. Thank you!

    • Fairy! I’m so glad!! This is just the sort of feedback that makes me think – okay, so it’s not just me indulging about my inner process with perhaps a little bit too much detail. If my words are useful, then, wow, it’s so lovely!! As for how I knew? Well, that’s the wonderful thing about the world – something I know that you appreciate with your strong beliefs. We are all on a path, and sometimes our path crosses someone else’s at just the time we need. My words, and what they gave to you, your feedback and what it gave to me: a perfect intersection xx

  14. Reblogged this on This is your real mother speaking… and commented:
    Gabriela’s writing is always beautiful, but this piece is especially so. The truth of it resonated with me to my core, to the struggle I’m experiencing with my own writing. I wish I could see myself as clearly as she sees herself!

  15. That was a very well told and written tale. Almost a novel in itself. How we reach the well of our own creativity. Mind you. Eating a pat of butter for love. That really is devotion, even if it turned out to be missplaced

    • Devotion or desperation!?
      I love your image of well of creativity. I might use that when I need to be inspired. A visualisation often works for me. Thanks so much for your lovely feedback. It’s always a super pat on the back when I knew reader/follower takes a moment to let me know what they think.

  16. Hey darling girl, thanks so much for giving us this. The inspiring thought for me to take away is the need for a connection between what pours out and an inner truth. It isn’t about automatic writing, however beautiful. Finding the connection is then what gives a piece its unique shape… Makes me think of Bob Dylan’s autobiography Chronicles where he starts on an anecdote that becomes a story that loops and hoops and just when you think he has lost the thread he meets up with himself and his story and makes a deeply satisfying whole.

    • I so need to read that autobiography.
      Alison, I love how you provide further clarity to this piece through your own understanding. It makes me realise that reaching my own conclusions and writing about them is not the final stage, but there’s the one that occurs when people give me their response, adding more layers. Thanks, hon! xx

  17. gotasté says:

    “Self is not just a person’s essential being, but also the way in which we differ from others. If I try to write in the absence of my self, motivated by something outside of me, I not only lose touch with who I am, but the qualities that will make my work unique.”

    This is so true. It relates to the tv promos I do as well. And all the great work from film directors like Clint Eastwood, Christopher Nolan and Wong Kar Wai just to name a few. And Gabriela, you have certainly bring back all those memories from my colleague days 🙂 The way you relate and manipulate the two stories is incredible.

    • Ooh, I love how this piece makes you think of directors. I don’t know Wong Kar Wai, but I shall investigate, because the other two are ones that I really admire. And thanks for that gorgeous compliment at the end – my mind is always intertwining ideas, and I have to trust that they have greater relevance beyond my own personal connections – so it’s brilliant that you are with me!

  18. Gabriela, I loved this writing, If it had been a book I would have said I couldn’t put it down. I loved the story of your first love, and the way you led us into the labyrinths of your mind and the art of writing, and it all hung together so beautifully, and rang so satisfyingly true.

    • Valerie, your comment is uplifting! I was recently sitting in an office in weidenfeld & nicolson, pitching my memoir and they said: yes, but what’s its USP? This threw me totally because all I could think was – the way I tell it. But the fact that you couldn’t put this down makes me see how I should just keep going!! Thank you 😉

  19. Benedicte Symcox says:

    So wonderfully, nakedly from within…

  20. diannegray says:

    This is wonderful, Gabriela! I just love the way you weave words into such amazing stories 😉

  21. A beautiful post and story Gabriela! Like you, I have fallen in love with the word, ” Indeed”. When I try to unearth the reason, I fail!

    Shakti

    • Hi Shakti. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Yes, it’s funny when we fall in love with words, isn’t it? I suppose it’s like any love – the reason is more in the feeling.

  22. Thanks for sharing. I really connected with your piece today. The way you describe the need/ pain and outer part of writing reminds me of the struggles I have been having with what I call my critical voice. The critical voice is trying to be in control and wants to sentence me to the hamster wheel of “You suck.”

    Whereas, if I get off the wheel of “You suck,” and just write it will flow and my creative voice will take over. I will touch that white-hot feeling that makes me know that I am flowing with the story and not against it. Right now, I am having trouble reaching that inner creative voice, but it is there when I do reach. The obvious solution is to just keep reaching and to just keep writing.

    Thanks again, for the beautiful words and excellent advice. 😀

    • Thanks for your comment. This is certainly a place that I am sure every writer would relate to. The way I look at it is – that critical voice is you, just as the creative voice. The trick is to merge them so that you are not swinging between the two. I think the more you ‘fight’ the ‘you suck’ voice, the angrier it will become, and the louder. Listen to it when it’s there – find out what it wants. I genuinely feel that it’s our ‘response’ to our critic that is the critic: to worry why we feel doubt, is to feel doubt. If we accept doubt, then we accept that being a writer comes with its ups and downs, and then suddenly a down moment, simply become a ‘space’ moment that we are navigating, waiting for the words to flow once more. I love your description of how the creative space feels. Every time I hear a writer talk of how good it is to be in the zone I understand once again why we give ourselves a hard time where we’re not there.
      Go carefully, and good luck!

      • I understand that the critical voice is a part of me. My goal is not necessarily to stamp it out entirely, but to wrest control from it. I say this because my critical voice is very loud and demanding. And if I let it take control I lose whole months to malaise and inner turmoil and discontent. Part of my personal journey is re-balancing and giving the creative voice its space as well. That way I can inhabit both, but not necessarily have the critical voice hijack everything for long stretches of time. 😀

        Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad you enjoyed my description. I definitely think that writing is my personal “high.” I’ve never been much into drugs, but the way that writing makes me feel when I am in the zone is almost like a drug itself. 😉

  23. Wow, that was stunning! So emotive. I loved Morten too.

    I do have to express a slight concern though, as a friend, you come over to my blog and talk about banana bread, and then I come over here and find you talking about bananas. What’s your thing with bananas huh?

    • If I had a thing it’s over. I had a too ripe banana today. I was so hungry I ate it, and now I can’t remember what it was about them I loved. Glad you got into the emotion with this piece. I’ve been questioning myself today, which is probably why I’m still up, and wondering if I’m a bit…well…I don’t know over-emotional. But if that gets approval then I guess it has its uses 😉

  24. marcelino guerrero says:

    “15 … was mirrored over a decade later” ; went back twice to read this passage. Just tremendous.

  25. Kelli K. says:

    Lovely. The story oozes the inner turmoil that comes from looking deep within ourselves and the peace that follows with self realization. Thank you for your vulnerability and strength.

    Thank you for the feedback on my new stuff. The comments are most helpful and inspiring.

    • You’re very welcome! Something I’ve learnt with my writing is that holding back never feels right, so it’s always a boost when someone appreciates the vulnerability. Thanks for stopping by 😉

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